In February 2015 a number of distressed and dead Bellinger River Snapping turtles (Myuchelys georgesi) were found by canoeists in the Bellinger River, NSW. The entire distribution of Bellinger River Snapping turtles experienced a mass mortality event where individuals were found to be dead or dying due to a mysterious disease that caused the turtles to be malnourished and immunocompromised, with most displaying symptoms of blindness and growths around their eyes. The Bellinger River Snapping Turtle only exists along a 25 kilometre stretch of the Bellinger River, NSW and prior to this event the Bellinger River Snapping turtle population was estimated at 1500-4500 individuals. With more than 500 individuals affected by the disease and mortality rates at 100%, the species is now at greater risk of extinction. Their restricted range, predation by the invasive red fox and hybridisation with the non-native Murray short-necked turtle (Emydura macquarii) are additional pressures placed on the recovery on this species. Turtles are long-lived and can take between 7-12 years to reach maturity. The reality is that the recovery of this species will take more than a decade. The potential loss of the Bellinger River Snapping turtle may have significant ramifications for the entire Bellinger River, which relies on the presence of the Bellinger River Snapping turtle. Turtles are highly generalist consumers and fill multiple positions in the food web as top predators, herbivores and scavengers. As scavengers, turtles play a crucial role in stabilising food webs and redistributing nutrients back into the ecosystem. The Bellinger River Snapping Turtle is adapted to boom-bust cycles of the river, is resilient to natural shortages of food and are good indicators of biological health. However the significant number of dead turtles suggests an inability for the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle to adapt and suggests that something is very wrong with the state of the river. The extinction of the Bellinger River Snapping turtle may disrupt food web dynamics and processes and consequently lead to reduced ecosystem biodiversity.
- Determine the population size and demographic structure of Bellinger River Snapping turtle in the Bellinger River after the mass mortality event.
- Determine the home range of the Bellinger River turtles.
- Assess malnourishment and low diversity as potential causes of the 2015 mass mortality event.
- Determine the degree of habitat and diet overlap with the non-native Murray short-necked turtle
- Determine the degree of hybridisation among the Bellinger River turtles and Murray short-necked turtle
- Restore the population of Bellinger River turtles by releasing head-start juveniles to reduce the impact of fox predation on nests and supplement natural recruitment.
Saving the Bellinger River Turtle video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjJFoDGKuPE
Project 162512755 location - Australia, Oceania